Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2016

What is to be done

Filed under: ussr — louisproyect @ 1:18 pm

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Dr. Michael Welton,

In your long diatribe against Lenin on CounterPunch today, you turn “What is to be Done” into some kind of original sin:

In his educational treatise What is to be Done? (1903), Lenin formulates the pedagogical relationship between educator (socialist intellectual) and those to be educated (peasants and proletariat) in bluntly instrumental and directive terms.

This famous (or infamous) text can be situated in the years between 1872 and 1905 that were marked by the absence of revolution. The existing revolutionary parties held gradualist and economistic beliefs, and Lenin could not see any way forward without “vanguard” subordination of the working class to the Leninist educator.

You don’t seem to understand that Lenin’s ideas on the revolutionary party were a direct application of the model of the German Social Democracy. Lenin wrote:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

Lenin’s main point is that the Social Democrat should not aspire to be a trade union secretary, but instead the “tribune of the people.” This tribune will “react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum of people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Lenin’s example of one such tribune is the German Social Democratic leader Wilhelm Liebnecht. The German Social Democracy was Lenin’s model for what was needed in Russia. This type of party did not exist in Russia and it was his goal to build one.

You cite a number of enemies of Lenin in your diatribe including Maurice Brinton whose citation of Lenin’s 1918 article “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” supposedly indicated that the fate of the Russian Revolution was sealed therein–thus making an amalgam of Lenin and Stalin: “Revolution demands, in the interests of socialism, that the masses unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders of the labour process.”

I am not sure what it is that you teach but history does not seem to be your forte. Lenin’s article was written during the civil war when the USSR was invaded by 8 imperialist armies, including the USA. This resulted in the death of 7 to 12 million people, mostly civilians, according to the Wikipedia article on the Russian civil war.

Once the civil war was over, the Soviets dropped war communism like a hot potato and moved toward the NEP which hardly maps to Maurice Brinton’s nightmare. Of course the NEP led to a series of other problems that arguably strengthened Stalin’s hand. In any case, the best way to understand what happened in the USSR is not by quoting libertarian communists like Maurice Brinton that sound great on paper. Rather it requires an engagement with the social and economic forces that acted mercilessly on Lenin and all attempts in the 20th and 21st century to build an alternative to capitalism. The lesson that can be drawn is that socialism requires a global framework if it is to succeed. Lenin’s writings and even the fitful attempts of the Comintern to provide such a framework are still useful for those of us who remain inspired by the 1917 revolution.

Although I am happy to see CounterPunch–a website that unfortunately gives far too much space for people who obviously admire Stalin and Stalin Jr. (Vladimir Putin)–publish your article, it is a disservice to socialism. My recommendation to you is to read Neil Harding’s “Lenin’s Political Thought” to get a handle on what Lenin believed as opposed to the funhouse mirror image of Lenin and the USSR by Maurice Brinton et al.

Have a nice day.

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